Monday, 12 October 2015

The Watchers, by Neil Spring

Warning: spoilers ahead for both The Watchers and Neil Spring’s previous novel The Ghost Hunters.

Neil Spring, author of the best-selling The Ghost Hunters, a novel about psychical researcher Harry Price, has returned with another doorstop.  The Watchers draws on the 1977 UFO flap in Pembrokeshire which included a close encounter at Broad Haven Primary School, where some of the children said they had seen a spacecraft land and a sliver humanoid emerge.  Mixed in is conspiracy theory; Cold War apprehension and the fear of nuclear annihilation; secret government operations; and covert American military activity on ‘Airstrip One’ with little or no oversight by the British establishment.  It’s the sort of milieu that was mined superbly by Troy Kennedy Martin in Edge of Darkness.

Against this uneasy background, Robert Wilding (Wildling according to the back cover) is an assistant to the Member of Parliament for Pembrokeshire, Paul Bestford.  More importantly Bestford is chairman of the Defence Select Committee and Wilding is using his boss for his own agenda: damaged psychologically because of a traumatic childhood, he wants to uncover what happened to his mother during a peace protest at an American air base in 1963 which left her blind in one eye and with severe memory loss.  In this effort he is being fed information by a retired admiral, Lord Hill Bartlett (the name a nod to Lord Hill Norton, an admiral of the fleet who developed an interest in UFOs).

Wilding’s search for the truth takes him back to Broad Haven, where he grew up with his unsympathetic grandfather after his parents’ untimely deaths there.  Strange goings on suggest it is a hot-spot for alien visitors, and in the process of investigating their meaning Wilding discovers things about himself from his childhood he had suppressed.  Eventually he reveals a sinister conspiracy run by the local Rotarians, one with a supernatural dimension that could mean the end of civilisation as we know it.  The bulk of the book comprises his first-hand testimony as he gets to grips with recalcitrant locals in his search for answers to mysteries past and present and finds out who his friends are.

The story is reminiscent of Nigel Kneale, mixing science fiction and horror tropes, Spring’s silvery aliens actually expressions of a demonic effort to break through from another dimension and take control of our world.  That reverses the premise of Quatermass and the Pit, aliens misidentified as demons becoming demons misidentified as aliens.  It’s an endearingly corny idea, though the special effects will require a more substantial budget than that allocated to the period drama of The Ghost Hunters when Spring sells the film rights.

Surprisingly, despite dissimilar subject matter, The Watchers is actually a companion piece to The Ghost Hunters, with a returning character, Dr Robert Caxton.  His appearances in The Watchers are marginal for most of the narrative, though they include extracts from his book The Mind Possessed: A Personal Investigation into the Broad Haven Triangle, which are interleaved with Wilding’s first-person account.  Both novels too are structured with a frame: in The Ghost Hunters the frame is 1977, looking back to the 1920s; while that in The Watchers is 1979, looking back to 1977.  Another connection: we find out at the end of The Ghost Hunters that Caxton’s father is Harry Price, and although Price’s name is not mentioned explicitly in The Watchers, there are oblique references, until we learn in the denouement – from Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher no less – that Price’s work was funded by the British government before the war. 

Unfortunately there is confusion in the chronology for anyone who reads both books.  The Ghost Hunters begins in October 1977 with Caxton visiting Senate House Library.  But the main events in The Watchers occur in February the same year, and one would expect as traumatic an experience as that undergone by Caxton in Wales to have had more of an impact on the mildly sceptical academic who opens The Ghost Hunters.  But there is an even closer relationship between the two books, with The Watchers directly foreshadowed in The Ghost Hunters.  At the end of the first book, Caxton is shown a letter, dated 6 March 1977.  It was written from Broad Haven where his mother, who had given him up for adoption as a baby, was living.  The writer, Vernon Wall, says that children at a local school had recently ‘witnessed something most bizarre’, and suggests that it needs an expert to dig into it.

This of course links to the action in The Watchers, except that by 6 March events had moved on from children having a weird experience in a playground because complete mayhem, including an extremely high body count, had descended on that corner of West Wales.  How can Caxton be investigating something in February he didn’t hear about until March?  Another, minor, problem in reintroducing Caxton is that there are now two individuals with the same first name.  Spring gets round this by not referring to Caxton in The Watchers as Robert, always calling him either Dr Caxton or just Caxton.  We are only told that his first initial is R.  When he writes to his wife (on 7 and 11 February) he signs the letters ‘Caxton’, a rather odd thing to do when writing to one’s spouse.

The ending of The Watchers looks forward to another significant real-life UFO mystery, that of Rendlesham Forest in December 1980.  The government, Mrs Thatcher explains to Wilding’s and Caxton’s horror, plans to attempt to harness the power which manifested at Broad Haven.  The date for the experiment is December 1980, at RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge, near Rendlesham Forest.  Wilding protests that these forces cannot be controlled, but he and Caxton are effectively blackmailed into assisting in the project (as we are still here it must have worked).  A possible hook to a further novel, or a television series, is Mrs Thatcher’s comment to Wilding and Caxton that while they are waiting for December 1980 to roll round, ‘we have need of your experience elsewhere.  There have been reports of…sightings, all over Britain.  And abductions.’

The Watchers’ epigraph, uncharacteristically ungrammatical, is by the late Ralph Noyes, described simply as a ‘former MOD official’ (coincidentally he retired from the Ministry of Defence in 1977).  As well as being involved with UFOs in an official capacity, he was also for some years the Hon. Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research and its self-appointed éminence grise.  He would not have been impressed to read a reference to the SPR, coming out of nowhere in an extract from Caxton’s book, which begins: ‘After the scandals caused by the Society for Psychical Research’s poor quality control in certain high-profile investigations, anyone operating in this field [presumably meaning UFOs, not a field with which the SPR has been much concerned] is compelled to act in accordance with the highest professional standards…’  What these scandals and high-profile cases are is not specified, but the implication is that the SPR through its ineptitude has made life difficult for other investigators, though why anybody should be ‘compelled’ to act in accordance with the highest professional standards is hard to see.  There is no reason for this puzzlingly gratuitous attack on the SPR to be there.

Leaving aside problems of chronology The Watchers is well constructed but suffers from flat writing and never manages to attain the tension a thriller requires, even when it looks like an ‘ancient evil’ is about to be unleashed at the climax.  With The Ghost Hunters one senses that Spring is really enjoying seeing Price come alive, and while there are infelicities that could have been rectified by an editor, it is an entertaining read.  The Watchers has fewer basic errors (though the page number of one of Dr Caxton’s book extracts jumps backwards) but the author’s emphasis on working out the intricacies of the plot means that Wilding, Caxton and the rest do not lift off the page.  As a result The Watchers does not quite deliver on its promise.  It probably won’t do much for the Pembrokeshire tourist industry either.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

'The SPR and ASSAP: Time to Merge?' by Tom Ruffles and C J Romer


The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) was founded in 1981 as the result of dissatisfaction felt by a few members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  This is ancient history and it is not the present intention to rehearse the issues which created that rupture.  Suffice it to say that the two organisations have existed in parallel for over thirty years, attracting different, though frequently overlapping, memberships but generally standing aloof from one other.  Now that aloofness is dissolving, with each promoting the other’s activities on social media, and there is more interaction than has been the case in the past.  With this improvement in relations, the time has come to ask: why not merge to form a single body?

The first response might be to wonder why they should merge when they have such strong individual identities and do well on their own.  The answer is that they have strengths which are complementary, rather than antagonistic, so that both sets of members would gain from unification.  Another question is that if some members were dissatisfied with the SPR in 1981, could the same happen in the future, leading to yet more friction and possibly a fresh split?  The answer to that is that the current SPR is a long way from its 1981 incarnation, and fully aware of how traumatic such a rupture is in the life of an organisation.

The following sections attempt to answer some more of the questions that will naturally occur in a discussion of the merits of bringing ASSAP and the SPR together.  It is to be hoped that these will generate debate, which may produce further questions.

What are be the benefits of a merger?

The obvious one is a bigger combined membership, with economies of scale and greater resources.  A larger size should increase its punch and authority, both within the field and among the wider public.

The SPR has dedicated premises and a paid full-time administrator which would improve the ad-hoc administration experienced by ASSAP members.  The volunteers who run the latter do a tremendous job, but a dedicated office function has to be more efficient.  ASSAP members would have access to the range of benefits already enjoyed by SPR members.  These include four numbers of both the magazine Paranormal Review and the peer-reviewed Journal (and occasional Proceedings); free access to London lectures, reduced rates to bi-annual study days and the annual conference; a permanent library, archives of international significance, and free access to an online library of publications back to 1882.  ASSAP officers could be brought into the SPR Council structure by means of co-optation.

In terms of research, ASSAP has an energetic and enthusiastic membership, and this injection of energy would be welcome in the SPR.  ASSAP’s spontaneous case network would reinforce the existing SPR Spontaneous Cases Committee and its emphasis on training would be useful in stimulating interest in investigation among SPR members.  A larger combined membership, and therefore increased income, would enable an expansion of the amount given to fund research activities.

Education, a core function for both the SPR and ASSAP, would be improved as well.  Integrating the libraries and archives would provide an enhanced resource (the new SPR premises, bigger than the previous rented accommodation, providing the required space for ASSAP’s books), and ASSAP’s records would find a permanent home.  A single set of periodicals, with a larger circulation than either achieves singly, would attract a wider range of writers.

There would also be benefits in geographical reach: the SPR is often seen as London-centric, whereas ASSAP is successful regionally.  With a combined membership around the country there would be motivation for regional activities, enabling members outside London to participate in their localities.  This is an opportunity to decentralise some of the SPR’s functions, with more grassroots involvement.

What about differences in scope?

The subject-matter of the two organisations is not identical, that of ASSAP covering a wider area than that of the SPR.  ASSAP members might legitimately complain that a merger is likely to squeeze out particular interests, such as ufology, earth mysteries and folklore.  This is not necessarily an impediment, even though such topics in general fall outside the scope of the SPR.   In these days of easy electronic communication it is straightforward for sub-groups to pursue their interests.  The new SPR website will make it possible for members to keep in contact with each other easily, so that even though say ufology is not a significant element of psychical research, those with such an interest can still interact, while enjoying the benefits of their SPR membership.

Membership fees

A stumbling block is that ASSAP’s fees have always been significantly less than the SPR’s.  The standard membership rates are noticeably different, with ASSAP’s being a quarter of that charged by the SPR.  This reflects the different set-ups of the organisations, ASSAP’s lower volunteer-based costs compared to the SPR’s permanent paid staff and building expenses.  ASSAP members would hopefully consider the broader range of benefits enough to justify an increase, but perhaps there could be a transitional arrangement, with incremental rises over several years for existing ASSAP members to bring the two sets into line.  The SPR membership rates are very reasonable, and ASSAP members would hopefully see that the increase was justified.  It is most unlikely that there could be any reduction in the SPR rates to bring them closer to ASSAP’s.


On the other hand, ASSAP members would undoubtedly baulk at the costs of the SPR conference and study days (as do some SPR members).  With ASSAP’s expertise in mounting economically priced study days (notably the extremely popular ‘Seriously…’ series), there is no reason why these could not continue, augmented by the presence of SPR members who had never attended an ASSAP event before.  The status of some of these, such as conferences on vampires and witchcraft, would be problematic under the SPR banner but these could be run in collaboration with other organisations, such as the London Fortean Society; the SPR has participated in joint events with the Scientific and Medical Network so there is precedent for such an approach.

A concern which has to be acknowledged is that the desire to organise events might diminish, with those who had previously volunteered for ASSAP not wanting to make the effort on the grounds that conferences of all kinds should be arranged at the centre.  It is doubtful that the SPR office would be willing to shoulder the extra administrative load.

What about the name?

The name could be a sticking point for ASSAP members.  There is no easy way that the names SPR and ASSAP could be combined, and there would be overwhelming resistance within the SPR to altering an internationally-recognised name that has been in existence since 1882.  The most likely outcome is that the SPR would retain its name, but with ‘incorporating The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena’ on its literature – something that might not appeal to ASSAP members whose first loyalty is to that organisation.  This could be a major obstacle, but one that might be overcome if ASSAP members were convinced that the advantages outweighed the loss.

Mechanisms for reaching an agreement

This article has set out some of the pros and cons of a merger.  Bringing the two together would not be quick as there are a number of steps before that could happen.  In addition to a general debate among both sets of members there would have to be an initial discussion by the officers within the two organisations; a formal process of consultation with members; meetings between the two sets of officers to resolve any contentious issues; then there would have to be a vote, with a criterion for a yes vote agreed in advance.


This long after the event, most of those interested in our subject are not bothered about why ASSAP came into being.  What they want to see is a thriving organisation or organisations that can deliver the means necessary for them to pursue that interest.  Many join both with no sense of conflict, and a number of those who established ASSAP continued to take part in the SPR’s activities, clearly seeing no contradiction in belonging to both.  There is no doctrinal reason why the respective memberships should not combine and work together, and the practical difficulties could surely be overcome with goodwill on both sides.  In delivering their services the two organisations are capable of existing independently, but their combination would strengthen the voice for psychical research.  If that is our aim, then the case for coming together to our mutual benefit, and that of the field, is a strong one.

This article is being published jointly on the authors’ blogs, and publicised on social media, in the hope that it will generate a constructive exchange of views.  The authors are both members of the two organisations, but are not writing in any official capacity.  They welcome feedback of all types, which should be sent to tom.ruffles[at], in order to gauge levels of support for and opposition to the proposal.  This has to be a bottom-up process, with all opinions aired.

Tom Ruffles and C J Romer

10 October 2015

Update 31 October 2015:

On publication I linked this article to the SPR’s Facebook page and Twitter feed, while CJ Romer put a link on ASSAP’s Facebook page and later added the text to his ‘Polterwotsit’ blog.  Neither of us received any private communications, nor did the SPR Facebook page and Twitter links produce any feedback, suggesting a degree of indifference by those whose primary interest is the SPR, whether members or not.  However, the link on the ASSAP Facebook page generated a large number of comments.  These were uniformly negative.  It seems that there is still a considerable degree of mistrust by some ASSAP members towards the SPR, and one comment referred to the rift in the 1980s as ‘an unhealed scar’.  Not one person indicated a willingness to even consider the benefits of a merger.

A major concern in the Facebook debate was the greater resources and longer history of the SPR, which would cause ASSAP’s identity to be submerged.  Another issue, as I suspected it would be, is the difference in scope between the two organisations, particularly the lack of a focus on ufology within the SPR.  The fear was that more fortean activities would be marginalised (though despite it cropping up frequently in the discussion, I haven’t actually seen much evidence of members pursuing ufology with any vigour through ASSAP), and the creation of special interest groups discussing issues online was considered insufficient.  In fact, it was felt that the more limited scope of psychical research was a driver for the creation of ASSAP.  There was a feeling that it would make more sense for the SPR to merge into ASSAP than vice versa, or for the SPR to first change the ‘P’ in its name from Psychical to Paranormal, and expand its remit accordingly.

It was suggested that should the SPR and ASSAP combine, a significant rump would immediately split off to form ASSAP Mark Two; there could even be an exodus from the SPR, leading to three separate bodies (unlikely in my view).  A proposal was put forward that some form of networking between the two organisations, along with others which share a similar outlook, would assist greater collaboration while allowing each to retain its own identity.  It was generally agreed that greater cooperation is a good thing, though it was not specified what form that cooperation might take, apart from participating in each other’s conferences, and the counter-argument is that increased bureaucracy would lead to a loss of interest, making any gains short-lived.

The myth that membership of the SPR is expensive was impossible to eradicate, but then some ASSAP members think that £15 is a bit steep, so it is a matter of perspective.  A strand of the discussion focused on the higher overheads of having a building and paid staff, which does not occur if the administration is done from a volunteer’s home office.  It could be that ASSAP members like to think that SPR membership rates are exorbitant because it reinforces their belief that ASSAP is superior.  There was no acknowledgement of the benefits of SPR membership and its value for money.

A common argument was that ASSAP is in good shape and has no need of the SPR.  I learned that ASSAP’s funds are healthy, whereas I had assumed that they are parlous.  Even so, my main concern has not been the amount of money it has in the bank but organisational failures caused by a reliance on volunteers and erratic direction by its officers.  These deficiencies are now being rectified with an injection of energy (not least C J Romer taking on the task of producing its publications) but there are still problems, and some of those with the loudest voices on ASSAP’s Facebook page are not involved in the management structure and merely assume that ASSAP is strongly placed to face the future.  My suggestion that it might be in long-term decline did not go down well.

Writing the article was a useful exercise, but ASSAP’s core members are fiercely loyal and the conclusion that has to be drawn from the debate, which was generally conducted on respectful terms with minimal snark, is that a merger is unlikely.  There would be net benefits in my opinion, but the obstacles are too great.  The situation could arise at some point that ASSAP has to wind up, but probably not in the short to medium term.  If it does collapse the SPR will be able to offer a home to its members, but there would be no ASSAP to merge with and those subjects that fall outside the SPR’s primary area of interest, such as UFOs, would have to find a home elsewhere.

Tom Ruffles